What Does Your Holistic Medical Professional Really Know About Aromatherapy?

Aug 23, 10:53 PM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

I had a really disturbing meeting with someone I met at a networking event last week.

"So, I'm a nurse and I've been using essential oils for years, just for myself and my family. I love my oils and use them for everything, but I've never studied aromatherapy. I'm thinking of becoming a nurse practitioner and want to know exactly how to prescribe essential oils to my patients. Tell me precisely how you do that."

Whoa! I had to explain that I do not prescribe anything; it's not within my scope of practice. Nor could she legally prescribe anything as an RN within her scope of practice. I explained that if she wanted to use aromatherapy as an RN or NP in clinical practice, she had to have formal training in aromatherapy and have a full understanding of essential oil cautions, contraindications and applications to special populations.

"Oh, essential oils don't have any cautions. That's ridiculous, you can't hurt anyone with aromatherapy. And there's no need for me to have to study with master aromatherapists like you did."

I was stunned at her response. Nurses (whether NPs or otherwise) do not work with healthy people. By the very nature of their profession they work with sick, often critically ill persons. Cautions and contraindications must be observed with normal, healthy adults, and even more so with sick people. Those who are ill or members of a special population (pediatric, geriatric, immuno-suppressed, pregnant, etc.) may be unable to use an essential oil that is perfectly safe for a healthy individual, or require significantly different dosing or application. Anyone who has direct patient contact in a clinical setting and is using aromatherapy with patients needs to know what they're doing... whether they're a nurse, physician, physical therapist, respiratory therapist, chiropractor, massage therapist or otherwise. 

Would you want this nurse to be using essential oils on you?

While there are an increasing number of qualified aromatherapists within the nursing community, I am still surprised by some of the queries I receive: 

"I heard that if I put a drop of bergamot oil inside my surgical mask, I can't get ebola. Are there any other essential oils that will work?"

"Don't essential oils oxygenate all the cells of the body?"

"I've been putting neat oregano and peppermint on my 6-month-old and 2-year-old's feet to prevent them from getting colds or flu since I'm exposed to so many sick people at work. I'm starting to wonder if this is safe?"

"Peppermint oil can interfere with some medications? Really? Which ones?"

Unfortunately, with the recent surge of interest in aromatherapy, there are all too many medical professionals in hospitals, clinics, hospice and doctors' offices who are just as ill-educated as their patients. Aromatherapy is an unregulated industry, and is regarded by many in the medical field as a soft or "feel good" pseudotherapy despite abundant evidence to the contrary. A shocking number of medical facilities have no policies in place that govern who may provide aromatherapy or how it should safely be administered. In one notable case, essential oils were pulled from regular use in a major university medical center ER when someone pointed out that the supplier had made fraudulent claims for essential oil efficacy and advised questionable use of product. No one on staff thought to question the supplier's claims or advice, because no one had received an appropriate, clinically-oriented aromatherapy education.  

Enough adverse incidents have occurred that the more progressive hospitals who provide integrative therapies have instituted mandatory training for RNs and allied health professionals. Allina Health and Banner Health have been forerunners in developing aromatherapy programs which require training specific to medical settings. An increasing number of companies owned by qualified aromatherapists offer courses for healthcare providers who work at facilities that do not have formal educational programs in place. Some of these are modelled on courses taught in UK or Australia, where government regulation of essential oils is stringent.

What about the holistic healthcare providers who work at your local doctor's office or nursing home? It's impossible to know if they have received adequate aromatherapy training unless you ask for their credentials. Complementary therapies are becoming popular because consumers request them, and a physician or facility may "holistic wash" to attract patients and increase income.

This was the case with a client who contacted me because she was suspicious of the advice given to her by a "green practice" pediatrician. He had told her to apply undiluted peppermint and Eucalyptus globulus oils to her 5-month-old baby's spine and feet for a respiratory infection, then sold her several bottles of essential oil. Unbeknownst to her, he was a distributor for an MLM company. And unbeknownst to him, his advice may have cost her infant respiratory or nervous system failure had she not questioned it. Beware of any allopathic medical professional who is hawking MLM essential oils, vitamins, dietary supplements, green cleaning products, color therapy products and the like. It's more about their bottom line and a lot less about your health. Don't be afraid to inquire about their training in complementary therapies, and don't feel bad about asking questions if their recommendations or motivations don't feel right. I don't simply say this as an aromatherapist, but as a patient... I fired one of my own physicians because she became more invested in becoming a celebrity spokeperson for flaky product lines than providing good medical care.

As complementary and integrative healthcare continues to forge mainstream, it is my hope that comprehensive clinical aromatherapy education for medical staff will become the norm. I applaud and support the nurses, allied health professionals and integrative therapists who are pioneering true, safe clinical aromatherapy in their workplaces. I know they've had to put in many hours and often fought an uphill battle to get appropriate qualifications and programs implemented.

Moreover, I hope the nurse I spoke to gets it.

First do no harm.


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